Whenever a major news story comes out, people weigh in with their views. That makes sense in a society that supports freedom of expression. And in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it takes very little time before people from all over the world have their say on stories.
On the one hand, I don’t think many people would say we shouldn’t have the right to speak our minds. On the other, the price for this is that people sometimes do so before they have all the facts. And that can make it much harder to get to the truth about something. It can also make things terribly difficult for the people involved in such news stories.
That said, people do share their opinions, sometimes quite publicly, and that can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. It also makes for an interesting point of conflict.
Even before the days of the Internet, people spoke out publicly, whether or not they had all the facts. Agatha Christie, for instance, uses this plot point in several of her stories. To take one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to look into a case. James Bentley has been arrested for murdering his landlady. There’s evidence against him – enough, in fact, that he’s been convicted. But Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. He wants Poirot to investigate and find out the truth before Bentley is executed. Poirot goes to the village of Broadhinny to learn what actually happened, and very soon discovers that popular opinion is very much against Bentley. Everyone assumes that he is guilty, and many people are surprised that Poirot is even interested in the matter. There are those who claim they always ‘knew’ Bentley was dangerous, and plenty more who are happy to give Poirot their opinions as to Bentley’s guilt. But there’s more to this case than a misfit lodger who killed his landlady, and Poirot soon finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Mrs. McGinty. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs…
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen decides to take some time away to work on his writing. So he travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he plans to stay in a guesthouse owned by the town’s social leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen’s visit naturally puts him in contact with the Wright family; and he learns a sad part of their history. John F. and Hermy’s youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to Jim Haight; in fact, the guesthouse in which Queen is staying was intended as their first home. But Haight left town suddenly, jilting his fiancée. When he returns just as suddenly, everyone is already prejudiced against him. But Nora is determined to renew her relationship with him, and to everyone’s dismay, the couple marry. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes to Wrightsville for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Haight is arrested for murder, and people are soon very quick to voice their opinions, both verbally and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. One opinion builds from another, and the outcry becomes so intense that Haight’s attorney Eli Martin has a very difficult job assembling his case. In the end, the only people who believe that Haight might be innocent are Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat. And they work to find out who really committed the crime.
There’s a similar sort of ‘fanning the flames’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. When Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, there’s an immediate public reaction. Without knowing any of the real facts involved, everyone assumes that Robinson is guilty. It doesn’t help matters at all that he is Black, and Mayella Ewell is White. Word spreads quickly and Robinson’s life is at risk. But local attorney Atticus Finch isn’t convinced that things happened the way everyone thinks they did. He takes Robinson’s case and digs more deeply. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone’s sure of what happened, without having actual information. Oh, and talking of Harper Lee….her new novel Go Set a Watchman is due to be released on 14 July. I’m proud to be co-hosting a blog tour to celebrate its release. You can check out the details right here, and get involved if you’d like.
In the US, one of the big questions people have weighed on is what really happened to President John F. Kennedy. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in that murder, people have voiced all sorts of views, including views not supported by facts. The same is true for the famous O.J. Simpson case. Editorials, blogs, books and articles have been written on that case; it’s still a subject for discussion over twenty years later. And people are still convinced one way or the other without always carefully reviewing the facts.
One of the clearest examples of people having their say has been Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain case. The 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter Azaria sparked a major outcry and a great deal of media interest. The question of whether or not ‘Lindy did it’ was a very hot topic for a long time. And it’s found its way into a few books in which we see that theme of people sharing their opinions regardless of whether they’re informed.
One of them is Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be the perfect life. She’s smart and attractive, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. Everything changes when her daughter is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse can find no formal record of that. Now the gossip starts. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, what happened to her? If she is dead, is Jodie responsible? The outcry gets louder and more public, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. And a lot of vitriol comes from people who don’t have the facts. Interestingly, in one scene, Jodie is invited to a book club meeting at which the group is discussing a book about the Chamberlain case. We do learn the truth about Jodie’s first baby, but it’s despite, not because of, public views.
There’s an oblique reference to the Chamberlain case in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson report their infant son Noah missing, there’s a huge amount of public support for them at first. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, editorials and more urge the return of the baby and express sympathy for the couple. But when questions come up about the incident, the tide of public opinion sways. Before long, people begin to be sure that Joanna had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now social media outlets burst with condemnation and worse. We do learn what really happened to Noah, but it’s no thanks to the uninformed blog posts, comments, Tweets and so on.
And that’s the thing about having a say. It can lead to all sorts of heated debate, informed or no, about a case, event or person. And sometimes that means one’s got to wade through all sorts of commentary to get to the truth.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Back Chat.